It’s another American Tragedy. Sort of.
Norman Mailer-the famous novelist, journalist, egotist and occasional pugilist-is miffed about the way CBS advertised the recent O.J. Simpson mini-series, American Tragedy, for which Mr. Mailer wrote the teleplay.
“I found the advertising for it repugnant,” said Mr. Mailer in a recent telephone interview from his home in Provincetown, Mass.
Mr. Mailer said he thought CBS’s marketing campaign for the two-part mini-series was overly sensational, placing too much attention upon Mr. Simpson himself. That was misleading, he said.
“The emphasis of the movie was not on whether O.J. was guilty or not guilty, because there was so much evidence on each side,” Mr. Mailer said. “What I was interested in, and certainly what [American Tragedy director Lawrence] Schiller was interested in, was how a defense team works, especially how a Super Bowl defense team works. We were interested in the law, not the verdict.”
What really irritated Mr. Mailer were the CBS ads that touted American Tragedy as the “behind-the-scenes story that O.J. Simpson doesn’t want you to see.” Those ads referred to Mr. Simpson’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent the mini-series from being aired.
“When they ran with that thing-’See the picture that O.J. tried to stop’-I thought it was as cheap as shit,” Mr. Mailer said.
Mr. Mailer had been brought aboard to write the teleplay for American Tragedy by Mr. Schiller, his longtime colleague and collaborator on The Executioner’s Song. Mr. Schiller had turned his own account of Mr. Simpson’s case into a best-selling book, entitled American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense.
Mr. Schiller, too, had reservations about the CBS ad campaign for American Tragedy. Reached in Los Angeles, Mr. Schiller said that he and the network had originally discussed a different, more reserved advertising campaign for the mini-series, one that touted it as the “uncensored story of American justice at work.” But those plans changed, Mr. Schiller said, after Mr. Simpson’s attorneys tried unsuccessfully to win a restraining order to stop the mini-series. At that point, Mr. Schiller said, the network’s marketers and ad reps abruptly recast the ad campaign to emphasize Mr. Simpson’s legal interference. Mr. Schiller referred to that change as a “knee-jerk reaction.”
Mr. Schiller said he tried to appeal to the network to rethink its new campaign. He said he suggested an alternative advertisement promoting American Tragedy as “written for television by Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer.” But with deadlines pressing to complete the advertisements, his suggestions weren’t taken, he said.
“To be frank with you, as a team player, once the leader of the team makes a decision, you are not about to go into a street fight, so I went along with it,” Mr. Schiller said, adding that his appeals to the network were mild in tone, not “screaming from atop a building.”
But now, like his colleague Mr. Mailer, Mr. Schiller appears to have second thoughts about the way his work was promoted. American Tragedy, which received generally favorable reviews, performed respectably in the ratings but was not a smash hit. On its first night, Sunday, Nov. 5, it was pummeled in the first hour by Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. In its second installment, Wednesday, Nov. 8, it fell victim to the NBC hit drama The West Wing.
Mr. Schiller did not go so far as to hold the ad campaign responsible for American Tragedy’s unspectacular ratings-he laid most of that blame at the feet of Regis Philbin and Martin Sheen. He was pleased that the ratings data showed that very few people who tuned in to American Tragedy at its outset turned to watch something else.
But Mr. Schiller did suggest that American Tragedy’s O.J.-centric ad campaign failed to distinguish the articulate, nuanced mini-series from the shrill hype surrounding the Simpson case-and that failure may have turned away potential viewers. “If part of the country was tired of O.J. Simpson, then this campaign didn’t bring those people to the screen,” Mr. Schiller said.
Mr. Mailer also complained that the movie-O.J.-doesn’t-want-you-to-see ad appeared to be biased against Mr. Simpson-a bias that not only didn’t reflect the tone of American Tragedy, but also may have cost the mini-series some African-American viewers.
“That ad by CBS was stupid, because it was counterproductive,” Mr. Mailer said. “Counterproductive in the sense that the ad [was] going to turn off most black people who are interested in the Simpson case. And it’s a pity, because I felt that, for whatever else was good and bad about the film, it probably had the most intense and passionate view of the black attitude toward that case of anything I have seen.”
Never a slouch with words, Mr. Mailer called the CBS American Tragedy campaign representative of the “piggishness that infests advertising.” He also groused about the mini-series’ title. “I think [Theodore Dreiser's] An American Tragedy is one of the great novels written in America. I begged everybody concerned from beginning to end, please change the title, it doesn’t fit. We don’t even know whether this is a tragedy or not.” Mr. Mailer said he suggested an alternative title: The Dream and the Team. Mr. Mailer added that the plug for Mr. Schiller’s book at the end of the mini-series was “pretty damn tacky.”
Overall, however, Mr. Mailer seemed reasonably upbeat about the mini-series itself. He said he was paid well. He said he thought Mr. Schiller did a good job as director. He said he thought the performances of the three principal actors-Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran, Ron Silver as Robert Shapiro and Christopher Plummer as F. Lee Bailey-were “terrific.” (As for the other actors in American Tragedy, Mr. Mailer said, “I’d rather not comment.”)
Of course, Mr. Mailer acknowledged that few writers are ultimately satisfied with the way his or her work is portrayed on-screen, in television or film. Both are director’s mediums, he said. Mr. Mailer recalled a college symposium which said a screenwriter is “nothing but the towel boy in the whorehouse.”
“That remark still applies, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Mailer said.
CBS was low-key in its response to Mr. Mailer and Mr. Schiller’s complaints. “We have tremendous respect for Mr. Mailer and Mr. Schiller,” said a network spokesperson. “But we reserve the right to disagree with them on this issue.”
Tonight on CBS, Bette. With a teleplay not written by Norman Mailer. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]
Thursday, Nov. 23
q When convicted murderer Kenneth Kimes confessed last week to killing East Side millionairess Irene Silverman and dumping her body at a New Jersey construction site, few people were more creeped out than Court TV producer Maria Zone.
Ms. Zone, of course, is the producer who was grabbed and taken hostage by Mr. Kimes last month during a prison interview at the Clinton Correctional Facility upstate. During the four-hour hostage drama-from which Ms. Zone eventually escaped unhurt-Mr. Kimes repeatedly held a pen to the producer’s throat.
Mr. Kimes, who, along with his mother, Sante, was sentenced to more than 120 years for Ms. Silverman’s killing, was given eight years in solitary confinement for attacking Ms. Zone. It is that latter sentence, Ms. Zone believes, that prompted him to confess to the murder, perhaps to push for a shorter confinement.
“I think that the sentence he was given for the hostage-taking-eight years-certainly motivated him to talk,” Ms. Zone said. “What he did to me was an extreme act of a desperate, desperate man, and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel every morning to wake up and know that nothing happened to me.”
Ms. Zone, who has continued to work on a documentary about the Kimeses for Court TV, said she is sometimes unnerved by memories from her prison attack and suffers from occasional bouts of paranoia. She recalled a recent trip to the West Coast, in which she returned to her hotel room to find an empty dinner tray outside her door and the radio blasting. Ms. Zone said she hadn’t ordered any food or touched the hotel room radio for two days.
“Right away, I had visions that Kenneth Kimes has escaped prison and he’s waiting for me in his hotel room-which is totally ludicrous, but I went downstairs and requested a security guard, because I refused to go in there,” Ms. Zone said. No one was found inside the room, but no clear explanation was offered for the radio or the dinner tray, she said.
Ms. Zone said she has managed to sleep well since the Oct. 10 attack. “No nightmares, but every now and then I do have visions of him and things that he said and I shudder,” Ms. Zone said. “But they are few and far between, thank goodness.”
Ms. Zone’s documentary about the Kimeses is expected to air sometime in early March. Meanwhile, authorities continue to search for the exact location where Mr. Kimes dumped Ms. Silverman’s body.
Tonight on Court TV, To Catch a Killer. [CRT, 40, 9 p.m.]
Friday, Nov. 24
* Fox, Fox, Fox ! When are those pesky upstarts at the Fox News Channel going to quit causing trouble for their cable news brethren?
First came word that competitors at CNN and MSNBC were ticked about a recent Fox News Channel advertisement touting the network as “#1 for political coverage” and citing a viewership of 6.8 million people on election night-a figure Fox representatives arrived at by combining the cable outlet’s viewership with the audience for the Fox broadcast network, which had simulcast the cable election coverage. Then came word that Nielsen Media Research, too, was upset about the 6.8 million viewers ad, saying it hadn’t approved the use of its data for the ad.
Now comes a report that Nielsen has offered to work with Fox to revise the ad, but Fox has yet to agree to hold hands and play nice. Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said his company has offered to try and “make the ad correct,” but so far, it hasn’t gotten approval from Fox. Mr. Loftus seemed flummoxed by Fox’s resistance. “If they want to continue to run that ad that everybody knows is misleading, that’s their problem,” he said.
Responding to reports that Fox was using the controversial ad to attract publicity, Mr. Loftus said: “I think what they do for their short-term publicity is that they undermine their own credibility in the long term. And I don’t think that’s a terribly brilliant strategy.”
Meanwhile, a Fox News spokesperson said that the cable news channel had yet to receive “any official notification from Nielsen” to stop the 6.8-million-viewers ad. The spokesperson defended the claims made in the controversial advertisement. “What we wrote was not incorrect,” the spokesperson said.
Tonight on the Fox News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, which sounds like a bad 70′s cop show. [FNC, 46, 9 p.m.]
Saturday, Nov. 25
5 It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so the networks are dragging out all their holiday showstoppers. NBC tonight has Jurassic Park. TNT has The Wizard of Oz. And VH1 has the John Goodman neo-classic, Blues Brothers 2000! [VH1, 19, 6 p.m.]
Sunday, Nov. 26
$ Word arrived from the West Coast this week that American Beauty producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen have hooked up with writer Nikki Silver to develop a sitcom about a lovable, neurotic Upper West Side family.
The sitcom is being developed by Fox and produced by Regency TV. The working title?
The mind races, the heart jumps … at long last, an entire sitcom devoted to the exploits of erudite, ascot-wearing Paris Review editor George Plimpton and his cheeky brood. Imagine the bon mots! Imagine the literary guest stars!
Forget it. Reached at his home in New York, Mr. Silver said the series has nothing to do with the famous Mr. Plimpton. “It’s about a family of highly neurotic people,” the writer said.
Mr. Silver was nice on the phone, but like a lot of TV writers in the midst of development, he wasn’t in the mood to offer up details. “It may end up being about ante-bellum slaves on a riverboat when they’re finished with it,” Mr. Silver said. “I don’t know. I’m at a loss about what I should and shouldn’t say.”
Mr. Silver did add this, however: “All of the people I’m working with in development [at Fox] have wonderful teeth.”
Well, whaddaya know. Turns out George Plimpton lives on the Upper East Side, anyways.
Tonight on NBC, Titanic. In this four-hour, edited-for-TV (what editing? It’s four hours!) version, Leo lives. Kidding! He dies in this one, too! [WNBC, 4, 7 p.m.]
Monday, Nov. 27
( Like a wise old catfish on a Louisiana riverbed, UPN swam down this week and sucked up Chains of Love, the controversial reality-TV series that NBC unceremoniously dumped earlier this fall before airing a single episode.
Even though no one’s seen it here in the U.S., Chains of Love has already raised some eyebrows because of its bizarre concept. A woman (or a man) is chained to four members of the opposite sex in a competition for a mate, money and a vacation. Already a hit in the Netherlands, Chains of Love will be produced in America by Endemol, the Dutch makers of Big Brother.
As NYTV told you months ago, women’s groups, including the National Organization of Women, have had their concerns about Chains of Love. But that apparently wasn’t enough to scare off the UPN, which is, of course, the home to enlightened fare like WWF Smackdown!
“We were interested in this property back when Endemol was shopping the Dutch version of the show, and the fact that NBC has backed away from Chains doesn’t deter us in the least from bringing the show to American television,” UPN spokesman Paul McGuire wrote in an e-mail to NYTV, pointing to the network’s history of “bold” programming moves. “People will be surprised by what they see.”
Tonight on the UPN, Moesha. [UPN, 9, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday, Nov. 28
9 Tonight on the USA network, Casper’s Haunted Christmas. Nothing screams Christmas fun more than the ghostly apparition of a dead boy. [USA, 23, 8 p.m.]